Bhagavad Gita Vs Shakespeare: The final question

Bhagavad Gita vs Shakespeare: The final Question

Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita and Hamlet from Shakespeare are faced with the same existential crisis with the underlying question ‘whether to take arms against the troubles presented by life or give in?’

Civilisations have been born and collapsed. Humanity has gone through innumerable phases of change... and yet some questions about humanity can be seen popping up in minds across time and space. These are fundamental questions as opposed to some personal problems or questions that we deal with. 

Similarity between the Bhagavad Gita and Shakespeare's Hamlet

One of such pertinent question appears in Shakespeare's work and strikes a great resemblance with a central question raised in the Bhagavad Gita.

One of Shakespeare’s best-known works is "Hamlet." The opening line of Act 3 is “To be or not to be, that is the question." A quote that most of us have heard and possibly used for fun as well, at some point. 

Now, there’s a lot of similarity between this quote of Shakespeare's and the situation of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. 

In both cases, the question is posed to humanity. Every person, at some point, has to ask this question, to do justice to their human existence. Perhaps you too have asked yourself the same question, on that lonely night or on a quiet walk or in an extreme situation of grief, fear, or desperation!

Prince Hamlet is struggling to decide if he should avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, and he finds himself straddling the line between action and inaction.

In the ancient Indian scripture ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a battle is about to begin between brothers, or cousins. Both the armies are on the battlefield and Arjuna, the lead warrior from the righteous side, gets an anxiety attack, so to say, he drops his weapon and is torn between action and inaction. You may also like to know the reasons behind the self doubt.

The themes that Shakespeare explores are those of:

1. Life and death

2. Uncertainty

… for Hamlet is going through a torment of emotions, questioning if it is worth facing all the problems and bringing those to conclusion with our actions, or is it just better to give up and die. A clear theme of life and death. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—No more—and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!”

Arjuna is in despair too. He faces an extreme choice of whether to take up arms against his siblings, relatives, and teachers or give in to the attachments to them.

We see Hamlet finally rationalising his thoughts by contemplating death and after death: “To die, to sleep." To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life”. There’s the second theme, “uncertainty”. He can see there’s uncertainty in death too, and so with that line of thought, he has to choose the less worse of the two. Now, this quest, not being the central idea of the play, is not explored beyond the rationale required for the character to further the scene. 

sense of ego Thus, rounding off and merging the intangible spiritual knowledge with the tangible human actions. 

That brings us, as well, to a privileged situation. Since it is a question of entire humanity. The question is latent in us too. For those whom this question is no more latent and is becoming more apparent, the Arjuna in them is no more latent; Therefore, the Krishna as well has a chance to awaken in them. For where there’s ‘Arjuna condition’, there is a possibility of ‘dissolution in Krishna’.

A crisis situation rips away all the pretentious, all the superficial, all the trivial. A crisis situation has a possibility of breaking the maya/Illusion. A crisis situation throws us back into two basic modes. Stripping us of all the layers of futile thought, it awakens the survival instinct and it brings to light the existential questions. A crisis situation brings us back from our whims and fancies to what is significant, to what is closer to life. Every story is built around a crisis. If a novel, a movie, or a good story is void of a crisis situation causing a transformation, it fails to leave a mark on the reader or the audience.

We inherently admire transformation that comes out of crisis. This admiration can bring us to a good novel, movie, or story and help us spectate the characters’ transformations, but admiration alone is not enough to bring transformation to our life. For that to happen, we have to recognize the crisis that life holds, face the crisis, and finally fall in love with the crisis and transformation both. 

The Bhagavad Gita teachings are set up against the backdrop of a battlefield, arguably the most dramatic setting of a spiritual scripture. In these extreme conditions, Krishna points Arjuna towards the disillusionment of reality and the revelation of truth.

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1, verses 1.28, 1.29, 1.30, 1.31 and 1.46

Arjuna: Dear Krishna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me in such a fighting spirit, I feel the limbs of my body quivering and my mouth drying up.

My whole body is trembling, and my hair is standing on end. My bow Gandiva is slipping from my hand, and my skin is burning.

I am now unable to stand here any longer. I am forgetting myself, and my mind is reeling. I foresee only evil.

I do not see how any good can come from killing my own kins and cousins in this battle, nor am I able to desire any subsequent victory, kingdom, or happiness.

Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down in the middle of the chariot, his mind overwhelmed.

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, spoken by Hamlet

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

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Shoonyo (aka Vishal Avchar)

Shoonyo is a visionary and spiritual mentor. After 18 years of meditation and significant research into mind powers, NLP, healing practices, and deeper spiritual practices, he experienced the clarity of awakened space and began sharing with seekers.

He left a promising international corporate career in London to guide genuine seekers to the Awakened space.Shoonyo guides seekers through One:One mentoring toward their highest potential.

Shoonyo has been assisting spiritual seekers from Australia, Canada, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the USA for the past 12 years. An amazing work of spiritual fiction thriller, "Looking for the Obvious," was written by Shoonyo in 2019. He is Amazon's # 3 best-selling author and is cherished by elite readers. He is an honourable board member of India’s only NLP board (IBHNLP).